The Trump administration has offered a handful of reasons why it decided to bomb a Syrian government airfield last week.
The Department of Defense says the strike damaged or destroyed “fuel and ammunition sites, air defense capabilities and 20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.”
But the Trump administration acknowledges that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintains the capacity to commit further chemical weapons attacks, and that damaging this one airfield, from which it says Syria launched last week’s sarin gas attack, did not eliminate the threat altogether.
Still, the Trump administration says the primary reason for the military strike was to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons. But as the days go by, and more administration officials speak publicly about Trump’s calculus, new reasons have crept into the White House’s messaging, including the discussion of regime change in Damascus.
To keep track, I’ve collected them in one place. (And if you haven’t yet, read Marty Lederman’s post on the Trump administration’s talking points on the strike.)
President Donald Trump, on the night of the strike, issued a short statement to reporters at Mar-a-Lago.
It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
Trump also hinted that the strike was part of an effort to urge bigger change in Syria.
Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also, to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the night of the strike, emphasized deterring the future use of chemical weapons, but he also said the strikes were necessary to keep chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands, like the Islamic State’s or al Qaeda’s.
There are elements on the ground in Syria, elements that are plotting to reach our shore, and these type of weapons falling into their hands and being brought to our shore is a direct threat on the American people.
Tillerson also said it was about lines being crossed:
President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line, cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made, and crossed the line in the most heinous of ways.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, speaking the night of the strike alongside Tillerson, acknowledged this did not eliminate the threat of chemical weapons in Syria.
It was aimed at the capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons, but it was not of a scope or a scale that it would go after all such related facilities.
On Sunday, McMaster told Fox News’s Chris Wallace that the strike was about deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons.
Our objective was to deter the continued use, because there’s been a pattern of the abuse of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and his mass murder attacks against innocent civilians. That was the objective … The objective was to send a very strong political message to Assad.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a short statement Monday that focused on the deterrence of future chemical weapons use.
The president directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons and to show the United States will not passively stand by while Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, said Trump’s personal reaction to the horror of the chemical weapons attack drove the president’s decision-making.
I can tell you that his focus was on the fact that innocent victims were hurt by a terrible regime that was attempted to be covered up by Russia or, you know, make excuses for Assad by Russia. And he said he wasn’t going to put up with it.
And to see the images, to see the pictures, and to see the horror of that act, knowing that it was a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, knowing it was a violation of multiple Security Council resolutions, he said, enough, we’re not going to watch this anymore.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told a gaggle of reporters at Mar-a-Lago:
There’s very important national security interests in the region, stability and obviously there’s a huge humanitarian component to this.
On Monday, he offered further justifications, including stopping ISIS:
The reason that we took action was—was multifold. Number one, to stop the proliferation and the deterrence of chemical weapons. But when you see mass weapons of destruction being used, it should be a concern to every nation, especially our own people. The proliferation of those weapons pose a grave threat to our national security. So, number one, we have to stop that.
Number two, we have to stop ISIS.
Spicer also suggested the decision to strike was motivated by Trump’s strong reaction to the tragic images from last week of children who had been killed by sarin gas, adding that continued attacks on civilians could motivate further U.S. military action.
When you watch babies and children being gassed and suffer under barrel bombs, you—you are instantaneously moved to action. I think this president has made it very clear that if those actions were to continue, further action will definitely be considered by the United States.
Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, told radio host Laura Ingraham on Friday that the US will stand up to evil around the world when it can do something about it.
When evil happens and you are able to do something about it, you do something about it. This is the message we’re sending the world.… I think the message has been understood in Damascus, in Moscow, in North Korea, in Iran as well.
Gorka also suggested the strike against a Syrian military airfield was somehow linked to the presence of ISIS in the country.
This is a limited, surgical strike, targeting a specific facility at a certain time of day to absolutely minimize human casualties, but linked to the use of nerve agent against innocent women and children.
This is what we did last night. This is not Gulf I, this isn’t Afghanistan, this isn’t Operation Iraqi Freedom, this is a message to do with weapons of mass destruction in a war zone where the jihadists are most powerful to date.
Mission creep is something that other administrations suffered from. With the people we have in the Cabinet today, you can rest assured there will be no such thing as mission creep.
Eric Trump, the president’s son, said the president’s decision was partly influenced by the reaction of his sister Ivanka, who is an advisor to her father and was “heartbroken and outraged” by the sarin gas attack.
Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence. I’m sure she said, ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’ My father will act in times like that.
Kate Brannen is the deputy managing editor of Just Security and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.